Agile and Lean

by Joe Aherne

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Agile and Lean are currently 2 of the most popular business philosophies, adopted by many organizations across the globe, in various domains and circumstances. Both are usually called upon to help companies move faster and produce more quality products and services while maintaining healthy work environments. But since the adoption of Agile and Lean may differ dramatically from organization to organization, there is often quite a lot of confusion between them. Let’s see what each of them means, what they have in common, and what sets them apart.

Agile, the younger of the 2, emerged at the dawn of the new millennium and it was created by a bunch of software rebels, as a time-focused, iterative way of achieving continuous value delivery. The Manifesto for Agile Software Development, the document describing Agile, was envisioned as a declaration of independence, in response to the heavyweight and rigid processes that were very popular at the time.

Software development teams began embracing Agile to increase flexibility, user satisfaction, and adaptability in an increasingly demanding marketplace. Instead of shipping large scheduled releases, Agile promotes breaking down the work into small value-driven pieces, which are accomplished into short iterations. This approach became more and more popular in the past 20 years and many teams have adapted it to other domains as well, such as HR, Marketing, Sales or Product development.

Lean, on the other hand, has a much longer history, starting way before the age of software development. It comes straight from Toyota’s factory floor and was one of the most influential methodologies of the 20th century.

The precursor of Lean, the Toyota Production System (TPS) was invented with the aim of reducing losses and encouraging sustainable production. It used visual cues to produce inventory exactly when it was needed (known as just in time production) and focused on optimizing the whole system, to minimize waste. Other companies, inspired by Toyota’s success, began to adopt the basic principles of TPS in what came to be known as Lean Manufacturing.

Other variants of Lean are Lean Management, Lean Software Development, Lean Six Sigma, Lean Startup but all of them focus on the same ideas of optimizing the system, reducing waste, focusing on the quality, or delivering as fast as possible.

Now, what do these 2 philosophies have in common and what is different?

Well, it’s quite obvious that Agile is standing on the shoulders of Lean, with the Lean principles serving as a great source of inspiration for the creators of Agile.


Among the similarities that Lean and Agile share, we may find:

  • The obsession for the end result. It must create value for the customer and it is the only goal of the development process
  • The focus on the cooperation between the people doing the actual work. In both methodologies, the people doing the actual work are more important than the tools they use.
  • The attention to continuous improvement. While in Lean, every process should be continually inspected and improved, in Agile we have regular opportunities for reflection, in order to evaluate potential improvements.


But there are also a couple of differences as well, based on their roots:

  • While Agile focuses on optimizing development processes, cherishing creativity, Lean focuses on the optimization of production processes, embracing linearity.
  • While in production, variation is seen as negative and expensive, Agile embraces variation and promotes it as a competitive advantage. Teams that absorb variation really well have an advantage compared to teams that don’t respond really well to change.
  • While Agile, at its roots, was conceived to optimize the effort of a product team, Lean was conceived to optimize entire systems.

So, although they’re often considered as distinct philosophies, and often treated in an Agile VS Lean manner, the 2 of them are rooted in similar values. Depending on their specific needs, companies may draw inspiration from both Agile and Lean, and create ecosystems that deliver customer value in a sustainable manner.


Joe Aherne Photo
Joe Aherne

CEO of Leading Edge Group

Joe qualified as a Certified Public Accountant in 1982. It was a decision that reaped great benefits for Joe, providing him with an international recognized qualification which allowed him to follow in his father and grandfathers’ footsteps who had both worked and lived abroad. Having qualified as a CPA, Joe took up financial positions in the Middle East and UK.

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